Analysing Food Choice From a Means-End Perspective


Klaus G. Grunert, Elin Sorensen, Lone Bredahl Johansen, and Niels Asger Nielsen (1995) ,"Analysing Food Choice From a Means-End Perspective", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 366-371.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 366-371


Klaus G. Grunert, The Aarhus School of Business

Elin Sorensen, The Aarhus School of Business

Lone Bredahl Johansen, The Aarhus School of Business

Niels Asger Nielsen, The Aarhus School of Business


People have to eat in order to survive. Survival is the most important self-relevant consequence of consuming food products, but it does not, in industrialized societies, discriminate between various food products. In order to understand why consumers prefer one food product over another, it is necessary to understand the other self-relevant consequences consumers attach to food products.

The means-end chain model has been widely advocated to understand how consumers perceive self-relevant consequences of products (Asselbergs, 1989; Grunert, in press; Gutman, 1982; Olson & Reynolds, 1983; Reynolds & Gutman, 1988; Valette-Florence & Rapacchi, 1991). Very briefly, this model implies that subjective product meaning is established by associations between product attributes and more abstract, more central cognitive categories like values, which can motivate behaviour and create interest for the product attributes, which usually are not intrinsically interesting. By linking attributes to more abstract cognitive categories, chains of associations are established. A prototypical chain may consist of the following elements: concrete product attribute, abstract product attribute, functional consequence, psychosocial consequence, instrumental value, terminal value. However, the length of chains may differ, and the extent to which product attributes are actually linked to the most abstract type of cognitive categories, ie, values, is said to be an expression of the involvement of the consumer with the product (Celsi & Olson, 1988; Peter & Olson, 1993).

Means-end chains can in principle be measured in several ways, but laddering has been the method advocated and used most. First, some relevant product attributes have to be found. This may be done by direct questioning, triads, or sorting of products into meaningful piles. Then, respondents are asked for their preferences with regard to these attributes. Given their preferences, respondents are asked "why do you prefer....?", and, when they answer, again with "why do you prefer....?", and so on, until the respondent is tired or unable to answer. The idea is that the respondent in this way is pushed up the means-end ladder. The resulting data are then coded, ie, similar answers are grouped into categories. Based on this, an implication matrix is constructed, with rows and cells defined by the categories resulting from the coding process. The cell entries are the number of times, the two categories, to which the cell corresponds have been mentioned in direct sequence in respondent ladders. The implication matrix is the basis for constructing a so-called hierarchical value map. A hierarchical value map summarizes the most important associations between cognitive categories at the various levels of abstraction in the form of a network.

Means-end chains and laddering have been popular for various reasons. The means-end model is intuitively appealing. Laddering is a semi-qualitative technique, which is open for the respondents' own answers, without flooding the researcher with text data, as other qualitative techniques do. Hierarchical value maps are very illustrative and popular with users of market research. However, several problems with both theory and method have also been pointed out (Grunert & Grunert, in press; Grunert, Grunert & S°rensen, in press). The methodological and theoretical issues are partly interlinked: Resolutions of methodological problems may require theoretical progress, or at least a clarification of some theoretical issues. In the present paper, we will first briefly address how the means-end chain model can fit into a more general theory of consumer behaviour. We will then present some findings from a study in a food context, which can open up avenues of resolution for some of the problems pointed out.


Means-end chains (MEC) can be viewed as a model of consumers' consumption-relevant cognitive structure, ie, of the way consumption-relevant knowledge is stored and organised in human memory. When supplemented with theories or assumptions about the analysis of input from the environment, activating and adding to cognitive structure, and with theories or assumptions about the formulation of output, based on cognitive structure, MEC would become part of a theory with the aim of explaining and predicting consumer behaviour. A model of cognitive structure cannot by itself explain or predict behaviour; it has to be supplemented by assumptions about cognitive processes. MEC have not yet been integrated into a theory that includes such assumptions, and therefore it has been difficult to evaluate the usefulness of MEC as a tool to explain or predict consumer behaviour. It is, however, important that such a theory be developed, if MEC are to become more than an inspirational tool for the generation of advertising copy.

We would like to suggest that the theory of planned behaviour (Ajzen, 1985; Ajzen & Madden, 1986) can serve as a useful point of departure and of comparison in developing MEC into a theory of consumer choice. In the theory of planned behaviour, the cognitive structure relevant for predicting behaviour is assumed to consist of sets of beliefs, which are pairs of cognitive categories linked by an association. In the set of outcome beliefs, courses of action are linked to consequences of those actions. In the set of normative beliefs, relevant others are linked to reactions to these courses of action. In the set of control beliefs, courses of action are linked to resources and capabilities. All three sets of beliefs are linked to behavioural intention by a basic linear model.

The theory of planned behaviour thus takes two sets of factors as externally given:

* the excerpt of cognitive structure which is relevant for explaining/predicting the behaviour in question, viz the three sets of beliefs and their strengths, and

* the motivation associated with the beliefs

are assumed to be known and to be stable across the range of behaviours to be explained. Given that these factors are known, the theory says that the intention of performing a particular course of action will vary with the sum of the motivations weighted with the strengths of the beliefs. The theory of planned behaviour is not very explicit about which type of cognitive processes actually could bring this about, but it has been shown that a spreading activation process in a semantic network can bring about results which correspond to this specific variant of a linear model (Grunert, 1982).

The theory of planned behaviour thus has two components: a model of cognitive structure and a model of output formulation. The theory does not say why certain beliefs become relevant (or 'salient') in the context of a particular choice of courses of action, and it does not explain how the motivations determining the impact of the beliefs on behavioural intention come about. In the description of the theory, it is explicitly acknowledged, however (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), that characteristics of the choice situation will determine both which beliefs become salient and which motivations will determine behaviour. The process in which the individual analyses the situation and activates a subset of beliefs from his/her cognitive structure is just not part of the theory. The theory of planned behaviour has the overall structure


In MEC theory, neither the relevant excerpt from the cognitive structure nor the motivation is given. Rather, by measuring MEC one uncovers a broader excerpt from cognitive structure which is relevant across a large range of situations, and in any particular situation only a subset of it may become behaviourally relevant. Likewise, motivation is not assumed to be stable, but different values and consequences may be more or less motivating in different situations. A theory relating MEC to behaviour thus would not only have to specify the formulation of output leading to behavioural intention once the relevant excerpt from cognitive structure and motivation is known, but also the analysis of input explaining how, in a given situation and under given motivational constraints, certain parts of cognitive structure become relevant. If both types of processes were specified, it would become possible to predict behaviour contingent upon the situation and the motivational state of the individual. We would then obtain a more complete cognitive theory, which also explains those factors which are taken for given in the theory of planned behaviour:


A few building blocks in constructing such a theory are already available. Reynolds (Reynolds & Perkins, 1987) has developed the Cognitive Differentiation Analysis, where respondents' ratings of how well a product fits with the various steps in a ladder are used to explain product preference or product perception. In a similar vein, Bagozzi (Bagozzi & Dabholkar, 1994) has used regression analysis to relate the presence of certain links in respondents' ladders to their past behaviour and to the two summary constructs of the theory of planned behaviour, ie, attitude towards the act and subjective norm. Both are more pragmatic solutions for a problem of analysis rather than attempts at real theory building, but they can be interpreted as attempts to formalise the formulation of output (like behavioural intention or preference) based on excerpts from cognitive structure which follow a means-end structure. Reynolds, in addition, seems to suggest a principle for the analysis of input as well: his results from the Cognitive Differentiation Analysis seem to suggest that preference task activate the more abstract sections of means-end chains, whereas perceptual tasks seem to activate the more concrete sections.


In the following, an example will be presented that illustrates the possible complementarity between means-end chains and the theory of planned behaviour. First we show some results from a laddering study on consumers' cognitive structures with regard to fresh fish. We then compare the results with the results from a study employing the theory of planned behaviour framework, on the purchase of fresh fish.

Aim of Study and Research Design

The purpose of this study was to investigate the motivations for choosing different types of meat for the preparation of everyday evening meals. Of particular interest was the motivations for choosing - or not choosing - fresh fish. It was hypothesised that these motivations would be different for consumers with different degrees of experience with buying and preparing fish.

90 women from the Copenhagen area were screened as respondents for the study. The interviews were carried out in the homes of the respondents. For attribute elicitation, the interviewer presented the respondents with cards with the names of four different meat types, namely 1) whole, fresh, gutted plaice, 2) package of frozen fish fillets, 3) whole, frozen chicken, and 4) package of pork chops. A ranking of the meat types in accordance with the likelihood of using them for the next day's evening meal provided a starting point for the elicitation of product characteristics or choice criteria of relevance for the situation in question. These criteria were then probed with series of why-questions until the respondent stopped.

Measurement of each respondent's experience with fresh fish was obtained by an inventory of 42 items. The items related to the food related lifestyle framework (Grunert, Bruns°, & Bisp, in press) and covered experience with buying, preparing, cooking, serving, and eating fresh fish. The statements had to be rated on a seven-point Likert scale with poles "describes me very well" or "describes me very poorly". Sum scores were computed as an indicator of the overall degree of experience.

Developing Hierarchical Value Maps

The ladders elicited were subjected to a content analysis and a categorisation procedure. The coded ladders were entered into the LadderMap programme. Based on the experience score, respondents were split into two groups: those more experienced with fresh fish (45 respondents) and those less experienced with fresh fish (45 respondents). Based on the linkages among the coded concepts, an implication matrix was computed for each of the two groups. These matrices provide the base for a diagrammatical representation of the cognitive structures elicited in the laddering interviews, ie, the hierarchical value maps. The maps are shown in figures 1 and 2.

For both groups of respondents, two dominant groups of concepts can be identified in the maps: a group of concepts related to the taste and joy of eating (the hedonic factor), and a group related more to the contents of the food and its consequences for the physical well-being (the health factor). These factors have strong positive motivational links in both groups.

For the more experienced consumers, the hedonic and the health factors are partly overlapping, and they support each other in the sense that they lead to the same values. This is not the case for the less experienced consumers.

For both groups, the map also shows negative issues. For both groups, fish is considered expensive and time-consuming to get hold of. However, these negative aspects are more strongly emphasized by the less experienced consumers, where, eg, the perception of buying and preparing fish as time-consuming activities are negatively linked to (ie, seen as a barrier for) the concept of the family's quality of life.

For the more experienced consumers, the concept of wholesomeness seems to play an extremely central role: it looks as if every path leads to wholesomeness and physical well-being, and as if wholesomeness and physical well-being leads to everything else. For the less experienced consumers, wholesomeness and physical well-being is also mentioned, but it seems as if this issue is not as important as that of the time needed for buying and preparing the fish. For the less experienced consumers there is a clear conflict at the value level: the family's quality of life is perceived to be positively influenced by both the hedonic and the health related aspects, whereas it is negatively influenced by the time taken for buying and preparing the fish.







Also, for the group of more experienced consumers, the number of values represented in the map is higher than for those less experienced.

Supplementing Means-End Chains with the Theory of Planned Behaviour

The virtue of means-end studies is first and foremost that they not only provide an overview of the product characteristics liked, but also provide information on why these characteristics are liked. Means-end studies, however, do not provide us with information that can clarify the influence and relative importance of product characteristics and their associated benefits in relation to behaviour, ie, actual product choice. In the present study, we have therefore combined the means-end approach with a study based on the theory of planned behaviour (TPB). It then becomes possible to assess how much the different factors influence behavioural intention.

The results from the means-end study have been used as a source of inspiration for the formulation of items for a TPB study. Additional inspiration was provided by two focus groups. The structure of TPB and the items used in the study are shown in figure 3.

Comparing with the hierarchical value maps discussed above, it can be seen that the hedonic and the health-related aspects have been translated into items contributing to the attitude towards fresh fish, ie, outcome beliefs. So have the statements about fish representing a variation in the fare and that it is expensive to buy. Statements about the difficulties of buying, preparing and eating fish have been translated into both outcome beliefs and control beliefs, as they refer to issues regarding both outcomes of buying the product as well as the resources and capabilities of the consumer. The concern for the family's quality of life has been translated into normative beliefs, as this concern is related to the reactions of important others.

Data were collected from a representative sample of 800 Danish households. The questionnaire was filled out by the interviewee in her/his home in the presence of an interviewer who could clarify any questions of doubt. Items were to be answered on seven-point scales. In the questionnaire respondents also reported how often fresh fish was served in the household.

The data were analysed by means of multiple regression analysis. The respondents were split into two groups according to their usage frequency of fresh fish, resulting in two groups which can be regarded as roughly comparable to the high and low experience groups in the laddering study. The TPB model was estimated separately for the two groups. The results can be seen in table 1.

We can see that the variance explained in behavioural intention (BI) by the three summary measures of TBP, ie, attitude towards buying fresh fish (AB), subjective norm (SN), and perceived control (PC), is about the same for both heavy users (r2=.2765) and low users (r2=2626). However, the relative importance of the three components is not quite the same: For heavy users, AB has more weight (beta=.3927) than for low users (beta=.2982). For low users, PC has more weight (beta=.2017) than for heavy users (beta=.1613).



Also, the items used in the study seem to capture the three overall dimensions of TPB better for low users than for heavy users, as shown by the fact that r2's for explaining AB, SN, and PC by the products of belief strength and motivation for the individual beliefs are higher for low users than for heavy users. For both heavy users and low users, the most significant items explaining AB are good taste and good feeling in the stomach. The hedonic aspects are thus more important than any other issues in explaining variations in AB. Taste is particularly important for explaining the variation in AB for low users. This reflects that some of them actually do not like the taste of fresh fish at all. For both heavy users and low users expectations of the family explains most of SN. The control belief easy access comes out significantly for both groups as well, although the coefficients are not high. Only for low users, the perception of one's own capabilities of preparing tasty dishes with fish and the perception of how difficult it is to eat fish plays a role in the perception of overall perceived control.

Comparison of TPB Results with Laddering Results

The results of the TPB study confirm the importance of hedonic aspects and of the importance of family values. They show that these aspects of cognitive structure do have an impact on the formation of behavioural intentions. They also confirm the importance of perceived difficulties in the purchase and preparation of fresh fish for the formation of behavioural intention, especially in the low experience/low user group. In this respect, the results of the TPB study indicate that the cognitive categories found in the laddering study do have behavioural relevance in the context of buying fresh fish.

However, there are also discrepancies. Even though health-related issues were very dominant in the cognitive structures of those more experienced with fresh fish - and also present in the cognitive structures of those less experienced - they do not explain any of the variance in the overall attitude - and hence, at least within a TPB framework, do not have any influence on the intention to buy fresh fish either. That fresh fish is healthy and good for you is apparently appreciated by all - and therefore loses explanatory power with regard to differences in behaviour. If one wants consumers to buy more fish, one should therefore not tell them that fish is healthy - they already know that.

This underlines the major issue in turning means-end chain theory into a theory of consumer choice, as noted in the first section of this paper: We lack a theory indicating which parts of cognitive structure, as summarized in a hierarchical value map, become behaviourally relevant in a given situation. The health-related aspects of fresh fish, although very prominent in the cognitive structure, do not seem to become behaviourally relevant when forming intentions to buy fresh fish, whereas the hedonic, family-related and trouble-related aspects of buying seem to become relevant. Theory development along these lines is a major task for future research.


Ajzen, I. (1985), From intentions to actions: A theory of planned behaviour. In J. Kuhl and J. Beckmann (Eds.), Action control: From cognition to behavior (pp. 11-39), Berlin: Springer.

Ajzen, I. and M. Fishbein (1980), Understanding attitudes and predicting behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Ajzen, I. and T. J. Madden (1986), Prediction of goal-directed behavior: Attitudes, intentions, and perceived behavioral control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 22, 453-474.

Asselbergs, P. (1989 ), Competitive advertising - New developments in qualitative positioning research: Meaning structure analysis. Amsterdam: IPM .

Bagozzi, R. P. and P. A. Dabholkar (1994), Consumer recycling goals and their effects on decisions to recycle: A means-end analysis. Psychology & Marketing, 11.

Celsi, R. L. and J. C. Olson (1988), The role of involvement in attention and comprehension processes. Journal of Consumer Research, 15, 210-224.

Fishbein, M. and I. Ajzen (1975), Belief, attitude, intention and behavior. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Grunert, K.G. (in press), Food quality: A means-end perspective. Food Quality and Preference.

Grunert, K.G. (1982), Linear processing in a semantic network: An alternative view of consumer product eveluation. Journal of Business Research, 10, 31-42.

Grunert, K. G., K. Bruns° and S. Bisp (in press), Food-related life style: Development of a cross-culturally valid instrument for market surveillance. In L. K. and. C. Chiagouris (Eds.), Values, lifestyles, and psychographics Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Grunert, K. G. and Grunert, S. C. (in press), Measuring subjective meaning structures by the laddering method: Theoretical considerations and methodological problems. International Journal of Research in Marketing.

Grunert, K.G., S. C. Grunert and E. S°rensen (in press), Means-end chains and laddering: An inventory of problems and an agenda for research. In J.C. Olson and T. Reynolds (Eds.), Understanding consumer decision-making. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gutman, J. (1982), A means-end chain model based on consumer categorization processes. Journal of Marketing, 46(2), 60-72.

Olson, J. C. and T. J. Reynolds, T. J. (1983), Understanding consumers cognitive structures: Implications for advertising strategy. In L. Percy and A. G. Woodside (Eds.), Advertising and consumer psychology (pp. 77-90), Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Peter, J. P. and J. C. Olson, (1993), Consumer behavior, 3rd ed. Homewood, IL: Irwin.

Reynolds, T. J. and J. Gutman (1988), Laddering theory, methods, analysis, and interpretation. Journal of Advertising Research(2), 11-31.

Reynolds, T. J. and W. S. Perkins (1987), Cognitive differentiation analysis: A new methodology for assessing the validity of means-end hierarchies. In M. Wallendorf and P. Anderson (Eds.), Advances in Consumer Research Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.

Valette-Florence, P. and B. Rapacchi, (1991), Improving means-end chain analysis using graph theory and correspondence analysis. Journal of Advertising Research, 31(1), 30-45.



Klaus G. Grunert, The Aarhus School of Business
Elin Sorensen, The Aarhus School of Business
Lone Bredahl Johansen, The Aarhus School of Business
Niels Asger Nielsen, The Aarhus School of Business,


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


When Consumers Choose for Others, Their Preferences Diverge from Their Own Salient Goals

Olya Bullard, University of Winnipeg

Read More


A Rational Model to Predict Consumers’ Irrational Behavior

Vahid Rahmani, Rowan University

Read More


Consumer Attachment Styles and Preference for Sharing Products

Kivilcim Dogerlioglu Demir, Sabanci University
Ezgi Akpinar, Koc University, Turkey
mehmet okan, ITU

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.